There are those who doubt Dylan, question The Beatles, wonder if Elvis wasn’t some truck driving shitkicker who lucked out. In the canon of pop, however, there is one absolute article of faith – that Abba were actually very good. No, really, actually, they were. Elvis Costello has praised the “melancholy” flourishes of their songs, Ian MacCullough has declared that “Dancing Queen” would be one of his Desert Island Discs. None of these venerable post-punksters are afraid to pit themselves against what they imagine to be some consensus to the contrary and state that Abba are actually very good. Really, actually.
This “revisionism” reached an apotheosis back in 1992. It took the form of kitsch, granted, with the rise of Australia’s Bjorn Again, Erasure covering “Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)” and the entire gay wing of the pop community rising in a tongue-in-cheek pro-Abba frenzy that in interviews swiftly gave way to the contention that, seriously, that Abba were very good.
But no one ever said Abba were bad. Not even during punk. In 1977, The Vibrators gleefully told Melody Maker they were Abba fans. Sid Vicious, an admirer, related how he’d approached Frida and Agnetha at an airport for their autographs (terrorised, they fled). In the mid-Eighties, Paul Morley wrote that we should be talking of music as post-Abba rather than post-punk. No one dared expose themselves for a grey clod incapable of irony by opining that Abba were anything other than actually very good.
But Abba were not good. Abba were insidious. With their gauche dance routines, air of wholesome innocence, they’re fondly remembered as exponents of a now-lost naivety in pop. But they were far from naive when it came to the business of business. Setting up a publishing company in Sweden, they struck a deal whereby for each different country they would be under contract to a different record company and never for more than three years. They avoided big tours, preferring one-offs like a gig at the Royal Albert Hall, which generated hysteria, with three million people hunting 11,000 tickets. When they did appear live, they performed with the co-ordinated efficiency of automatons, ditto their photo appearances. In interviews, Bjorn and Benny talked of little but sales and market penetration. Benny would later work as a business consultant in England. Abba were a machine – it speaks volumes that the most damaging schism that developed in the band was when Frida (the red head) was alleged to have criticised Agnetha (the perfectly-arsed blonde) for her poor punctuality! When The Sun tried to publish this, Abba slapped an injunction on them.
Furthermore, Abba guaranteed worldwide exposure through promo videos, then still a novelty. Abba were not the last innocents but the first of the New Pop Evil, corporate, worldwide, prefiguring MTV and the marketing machinations of today’s pop industry by yonks. Musically, they were insidious too. Shapely, redolent of stripped pine, low-fat yoghurt, health, efficiency and whiteness that glows, this is music that offers no evidence that black people ever existed. Hitler could have listened to Abba and found nothing “degenerate” to object to. Not that I’m suggesting that Abba were Nazis. I’m sure that they counted many black people among their dearest friends. The fact that Frida’s father was a German soldier, that Bjorn once said the person he’d most like to meet was Napoleon and that Benny’s dog was called Isolde (after the Wagnerian opera) is scant evidence of any such leanings. But one suspects their musical popularity was down to its being “cleansed” of any ethnic input.
It’s no coindence that Australia and Japan, two of the most racist nations in the world, embraced Abba most wholeheartedly while America, the most multi-ethnic, resisted them stoutly. The consequence of this relentless purity, which might explain why some people afraid of the world is today find them cherishable, is that listening to their hits today is like chewing formica. Initially, the tinkling chimes of say, “Dancing Queen” and “SOS” are mildly refreshing, like tinkling spring water, But gradually, the plasticity, the bland, 90 degree turns the chords take, the flat, unmodulated pidgin English sentiments, the clockwork rhythms and dolly vocals make you long to fling filth at them. Frida and Agnetha make Kylie Minogue sound like Bessie Smith.
The sexual politics of Abba too, beggar belief. “Does Your Mother Know”, with Benny and Bjorn, the two squattest, ugliest men in pop leching away as the girls chirrup their Lolita-style chorus is bad enough but what about “Take A Chance On Me”? “If you change your mind/When the pretty birds have flown, honey I’m still free/Take a chance on me”. What self-respecting woman would consent to warble such sexist tosh, not insist it was amended to, “If you think I’m waiting around for a philandering slob like you all my life, you’re fucking well mistaken pal and I hope you catch the clap!” We are well rid of Abba. Irony and kitsch be damned. Abba were a blight on the 20th century. Never again . . .